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FAREWELL TO TRINITY
BURKE, who had been enrolled on 23rd April, 1747, as a student
of the Middle Temple, left Dublin to keep his terms in 1750; his bond is dated 2nd May in that year, and taking up the study of law with no very settled purpose, began his eventful career in England.
Early in 1750 the Scholars' tenure of the rooms in College had come to an end, and his group of University friends was broken up. Burke, like many before and since his day, left old Trinity with sincere regret "My mind was occupied with many thoughts and my eyes often filled with tears when I reflected on all the dear friends I left behind"-so he said, so say all of us.
Very shortly after Burke arrived in London he wrote the following letter to Matthew Smith, a schoolfellow of his who had set up a small school in the Co. Leitrim1. It is printed here, as it practically closes Burke's College career, and he launches out into a new world.
My dear Matthew,
E. Burke to Matthew Smith.
Mr Balfe was so very kind as to deliver me your friendly epistle about half an hour ago. I read it over, blest the first inventor of letters, and as I have plenty of ink, pens and paper, and as this is one of my holydays, I intend to dedicate it to friendship.-Balzac having once escaped from a company, where he found it necessary to weigh every word that he uttered, chanced to meet a friend: "Come," said he to him, "let us retire to some place where we can converse freely together, and commit as many solecisms as we please." I need not tell you the application. You'll expect some short account of my journey to this great city. To tell you the truth I made very few remarks as I rolled along, for my mind was occupied with many thoughts, and my eyes often filled with tears, when I reflected on all the dear friends I left behind; yet the prospects could not fail to attract the attention of the most indifferent: country seats sprinkled round on every side, some in the modern taste, others in the stile of old de Coverley Hall, all smiling on the neat but humble cottage; every village as compact and gay as a bee-hive resounding with the busy hum of industry, and inn like palaces. What a contrast between our poor country, where you'll scarce find a cottage ornamented with a chimney! But what pleased me most of all was the progress of agriculture, my favourite study, and my favourite
1 It and the reply appeared in The Beauties of Burke in 1798 and Bissett's Life of Burke in 1800. Prior gives extracts from Burke's letter, but does not acknowledge the source from which he obtained it.
pursuit, if Providence had blessed me with a few paternal acres. A description of London and its nations would fill a volume. The buildings are very fine; it may be called the sink of vice: but her hospitals and charitable institutions, whose turrets pierce the skies, like so many electrical conductors, avert the very wrath of Heaven. The inhabitants may be divided into two classes, the undoers and the undone, generally so, I say, for I am persuaded there are many men of honesty and women of virtue in every street. An Englishman is cold and distant at first; he is very cautious even in forming an acquaintance, he must know you well before he enters into friendship with you; but if he does, he is not the first to dissolve that sacred band; in short a real Englishman is one that performs more than he promises; in company he is rather silent, extremely prudent in his expressions, even in politics, his favourite topic. The women are not quite so reserved; they consult their glasses to the greatest advantage, and as Nature is very liberal in her gifts to their persons, and even mind, it is not easy for a young man to escape their glances, or to shut his ears to their softly flowing accents. As to the state of learning in this city, you know I have not been long enough in it to form a proper judgement of that subject. I don't think, however, there is as much respect paid to a man of letters on this side of the water as you imagine. I don't find that genius, the "rath primrose, which, forsaken, dies," is patronized by any of the nobility, so that writers of the first talents are left to the capricious patronage of the public. Notwithstanding this discouragement, literature is cultivated in a high degree. Poetry raises her enchanting voice to Heaven. History arrests the wings of Time in his flight to the gulph of oblivion. Philosophy, the queen of Arts, and the daughter of Heaven, is daily extending her intellectual empire. Fancy sports on airy wings like a meteor on the bosom of a summer cloud, and even Metaphysics spins her cobwebs, and catches some flies. The House of Commons not unfrequently exhibits explosions of eloquence that rise superior to those of Greece and Rome, even in their proudest days. Yet after all a man will make more by the figures of arithmetic than by the figures of rhetoric, unless he can get into the trade wind, and then he may sail secure over Pactolean sands. As to the stage, it is sunk, in my opinion, into the lowest degree; I mean with regard to the trash that is exhibited on it; but I don't attribute this to the taste of the audience, for when Shakespeare warbles his "native wood notes," the boxes, pit and gallery, are crowded-and the Gods are true to every word, if properly winged to the heart.
Soon after my arrival in town, I visited Westminster Abbey: the moment I entered I felt a kind of awe pervade my mind, which I cannot describe; the very silence seemed sacred. Henry the Seventh's chapel is a very fine piece of Gothic architecture, particularly the roof; but I am told it is exceeded by a chapel in the University of Cambridge. Mrs. Nightingale's monument has not been praised beyond its merit. The attitude and expression of the husband, in endeavouring to shield his wife from the dart of death, is natural and affecting. But I always thought that the image of death would be much better represented with an extinguished torch,
inverted, than with a dart. Some would imagine that all these monuments were so many monuments of folly-I don't think so; what useful lessons of morality and sound philosophy do they not exhibit! When the highborn beauty surveys her face in the polished parian, though dumb the marble, yet it tells her that it was placed to guard the remains of as fine a form and as fair a face as her own. They shew besides how anxious we are to extend our loves and friendship beyond the grave, and to snatch as much as we can from oblivion-such is our natural love of immortality; but it is here that letters obtain the noblest triumphs; it is here that the swarthy daughters of Cadmus may hang their trophies on high, for when all the pride of the chissel and the pomp of heraldry yield to the silent touches of Time, a single line, a half-worn-out inscription, remain faithful to their trust. Blest be the man who first introduced these strangers into our islands, and may they never want protection or merit! I have not the least doubt, that the finest poem in the English language, I mean Milton's Il Penseroso, was composed in the long resounding isle of a mouldering cloister or ivy'd abbey. Yet after all, do you know that I would rather sleep in the southern corner of a little country church-yard, than in the tomb of the Capulets. I should like, however, that my dust should mingle with kindred dust. The good old expression, "Family burying-ground," has something pleasing in it, at least to me. I am glad that Dr. Sheridan is returned, and determined to spend the rest of his days in your quarter. I should send him some Botanic writings, which I have in view, if I were not certain that the Irish Hippocrates would rather read nature in her own works. With what pleasure I have seen him trace the delicate texture of a lily, and exclaim with the God in Humanity, that "Solomon, in all his glory, was not arrayed like one of these;" and you know that our lilies are fairer than new fallen snow. I am extremely sorry that any dispute should arise betwixt you and your brother-in-law; he is, I know, a little hot-headed, especially when he takes a glass, and I am afraid he leans a little too much to the social can. Mr Peyton, however, is a peace-maker, and I am sure if the whole was laid before him, that he would settle it to your satisfaction, and the sooner the better. You are quite mistaken when you think I don't admire Plutarch, I prefer his writings to those of any other.—Sacra semper excipio, quae in sumna arce locare fas est & aequum nunquam non in manibus habenda.
Mr. Balfe sets out for Germany in the spring, on a visit to his uncle, who is now in Vienna. The General is very rich, and advancing in years so that it is probable when he is called to repose on his laurels, that his nephew will be his heir, and I need not tell you that he is worthy of it. I expect, in a day or two, to be introduced to Miss Woffington, our countrywoman. She is rapidly rising into theatric fame; I could wish to publish a few anecdotes of her. She is of low origin, it is true, but talents and nature often avenge themselves on fortune in this respect. The roses of Florida spring out of the finest soil, they are the fairest in the universe, but they emit no fragrance. I recollect that she read her recantation in a little country church, somewhere in the county of Cavan. Mr. Fleming of Stahalmuck wrote some verses on that occasion. I wish you could procure a copy of them for me as
soon as possible. I also wish that you could procure some anecdotes of Mr. Brooke, author of the justly celebrated tragedy of Gustavus Vasa. This is Smith's reply:
My Good Sir,
Matthew Smith to Edmund Burke.
I once read of a King of Spain, Alphonsus, I think, who was cured of a dangerous disease by reading a passage in Livy. Your kind letter had much the same effect on me, for my spirits were so low the moment I received it, that it is not in the power of words to describe my situation; but scarce had I read six lines, when my heart began to emerge, and the sun shone as bright as ever; and if you pity a poor dealer in Syntax, buried alive, I may say, write to me as often as you can. My school is on the increase, it is true, but the people are so poor that they cannot pay. I have thirteen Latin scholars, at a crown a quarter, and six and twenty in writing and figures. I have taken a little farm of about five acres. So that betwixt the cultivation of my fields, and that of the tender mind, I have very little time on my hand, or my feet, I may say, for sometimes I mingle in the dance. As to Greek, there is no attention paid to it in this quarter. Last week I endeavoured to prevail on Mr. Johnson to permit me to give his nephew a few lessons in the language of Heaven. He said he had no objection, if I could assure him it would enable Jack to buy a cow or a horse to more advantage. Having cast his eye on a Greek book, which I had in my hand, "What," said he, "would you have my nephew spend his time learning these pot-hooks and hangers?" Thus you see how learning is prized in this part of the world; and from your own account I don't find that the Muses are held in such high estimation in England, which I was early taught to consider the seat of arms and art. What, then, is to become of their votaries?-neglected, and I am afraid despised!-You'll forgive me, I feel myself so uneasy and depressed as often as I think on this matter; that I cannot help dropping a tear on my books-the only source and companions of my solitary hours, so that you see we have little cause to boast of the triumph of letters over the breathing marble, or the proudest trophies of war. Yet I join with you in blessing the memory of the man that first introduced the swarthy daughters of Cadmus into these islands. I think I can recollect some lines on this subject in the form of an aenigma, which, perhaps, you have not seen;
"Bis venere novem juvenes ad moenia nostra
Ex aliis, huc ad nos rediere, locis:
Orbe sed est toto gloria magna verum."
Whilst I am on this interesting subject, I am sorry to tell you that our old Irish bard, who could conduct those nymphs through all the mystic mazes of poetic dance, resigned his tuneful breath last week. I accompanied his remains to the grave. He has left me all his manuscripts, and I shall select some of the finest passages of them for you, and translate them for you as well as I can.
My school-house was levelled with the ground last week in a storm:— Boreas, of true Russian descent, pays very little respect to learning. The neighbours, however, assembled the next day, and raised me a new one, on a more pleasing scite; so that my bare-footed pupils are quite happy, as it is better wooded, and of course will afford them an opportunity of playing hound and hare with more art. O'Gara has made me a present of a dial, which I intend to erect in the spring. Oh the wit of man, that can even turn a shadow into use, and teach it to point out the fleeting hours, as unsubstantial as itself! But, Paullo majora Canamus. I once read in an old Irish poem, that when Jupiter made man, he gave him his choice either of wings or imagination; he accepted the latter, which shows that our first fabulous father had some brains. Let me rise on this divine plume then, and for once cast a glance into futurity. What do I see? Why I see my worthy friend, arrayed in a flowing robe; I hear his voice raised in the cause of innocence and distress; the widow and the orphan bless his name, and the wily villain hunted down through all the mazes of the law. Once more Astrea revisits the earth; I see him raised to the seat of judgement, his ermine as pure as his native snow; and the golden scales even balanced in his hands, and the sword of justice tempered in the tears of mercy. The ascent of this eminence is difficult, but
"Interpone tuis interdum gaudia curis."
I know you will be glad to hear that Tom and I are on good terms.— You are right, he drinks whiskey as often as he can get it-Ore rotundo, and sometimes
"Warm from the still, and faithful to its fires,"
too, which is worst of all. Your account of London, I believe is very just. All great cities, from Rome downwards, are the sinks of vice and the graves of genius. I admire the idea of your public charities. One of the three impossibilities amongst the ancients was Eripere Jovi Fulmen, and amongst the Christians Eripere Deo fulmen irae, but Charity is the emanation of Heaven!
As to Miss Woffington, I can recollect very little of her. She was born in Dublin, read her recantation in the parish church of Lurgan near Virginy, in the county of Cavan, before the Reverend Mr. Sterling, who was a great musician. Mr. Fleming did write some verses on that occasion, but it is not easy to procure them, for you know he's a great man-a Justice of the Peace, and one of the Grand Jury. They began thus I think
"And now the Sun, revolving to the west,